16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “These are the names of the men who shall divide the land to you for inheritance: Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun. 18 You shall take one chief from every tribe to divide the land for inheritance. 19 These are the names of the men: Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh. 20 Of the tribe of the people of Simeon, Shemuel the son of Ammihud. 21 Of the tribe of Benjamin, Elidad the son of Chislon. 22 Of the tribe of the people of Dan a chief, Bukki the son of Jogli. 23 Of the people of Joseph: of the tribe of the people of Manasseh a chief, Hanniel the son of Ephod. 24 And of the tribe of the people of Ephraim a chief, Kemuel the son of Shiphtan. 25 Of the tribe of the people of Zebulun a chief, Elizaphan the son of Parnach. 26 Of the tribe of the people of Issachar a chief, Paltiel the son of Azzan. 27 And of the tribe of the people of Asher a chief, Ahihud the son of Shelomi. 28 Of the tribe of the people of Naphtali a chief, Pedahel the son of Ammihud.” 29 These are the men whom the Lord commanded to divide the inheritance for the people of Israel in the land of Canaan.
1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, 2 “Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasturelands around the cities. 3 The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasturelands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts. 4 The pasturelands of the cities, which you shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. 5 And you shall measure, outside the city, on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, the city being in the middle. This shall belong to them as pastureland for their cities.
6 “The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. 7 All the cities that you give to the Levites shall be forty-eight, with their pasturelands. 8 And as for the cities that you shall give from the possession of the people of Israel, from the larger tribes you shall take many, and from the smaller tribes you shall take few; each, in proportion to the inheritance that it inherits, shall give of its cities to the Levites.” – Numbers 34:16-35:8 ESV
God provided Moses with the name of one man from each of the ten tribes of Israel. These men, hand-picked by God, would assist Eleazar, the high priest, and Joshua in the distribution of the land. The tribes of Gad and Reuben were not included because they had chosen to settle outside the boundaries of Canaan. These men were well-respected leaders among their respective tribes and would help to guarantee that the land was fairly apportioned and that each tribe, regardless of its size, was treated equitably and fairly. There was to be no favoritism or any form of nepotism. The larger tribes, whose numbers would be based on the recent census taken by Moses, would be allotted more extensive land allotments. But that did not mean they would get the best land. God was giving these ten men the weighty responsibility of dividing up the Israelites’ inheritance in a way that would satisfy all the parties involved, and that would not be an easy task.
The next thing on God’s agenda was to arrange for the needs of the tribe of Levi. He had already informed Moses that the Levites would inherit no land in Canaan. He had set apart the tribe of Levi as His special possession and had dedicated them to the care and maintenance of the tabernacle. As a result, God promised to be their inheritance.
“Remember that the Levitical priests—that is, the whole of the tribe of Levi—will receive no allotment of land among the other tribes in Israel. Instead, the priests and Levites will eat from the special gifts given to the Lord, for that is their share. 2 They will have no land of their own among the Israelites. The Lord himself is their special possession, just as he promised them.” – Deuteronomy 18:1-2 NLT
But while the Levites would be allotted no land in Canaan, they would be awarded the deeds to 48 cities located within the territories of each of the other 11 tribes (Joshua 21). Even the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh were required to provide the Levites with towns and pastureland for their flocks. God had made accommodations for the Levites.
These Levitical cities were to be strategically located throughout the nation of Israel so that every Israelite was no more than ten miles from one of them. This helped to ensure that the people of God were never far away from a member of the Levitical priesthood, whose job was to provide instruction in the ways of God. The Levitical priests served as judges (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) and teachers of God’s law (Deuteronomy 33:10). So, it was essential that every Israelite had ready access to a Levitical town and a priest of God.
Of the 48 towns awarded to the Levites, six were to be designated as cities of refuge. These were specially sanctioned zones within the boundaries of Israel where anyone guilty of committing a non-premediated murder could seek asylum. God had already declared His ruling concerning murder (Exodus 20:13), but He had Moses present a special provision for cases involving accidental homicide.
“If someone kills another person unintentionally, without previous hostility, the slayer may flee to any of these cities to live in safety.” – Deuteronomy 19:4 NLT
He even had Moses provide a potential scenario in which a city of refuge would become necessary.
“For example, suppose someone goes into the forest with a neighbor to cut wood. And suppose one of them swings an ax to chop down a tree, and the ax head flies off the handle, killing the other person. In such cases, the slayer may flee to one of the cities of refuge to live in safety.” – Deuteronomy 19:5 NLT
God knew that life would happen and that deadly accidents would be a part of the Israelites’ existence in the land. Men would be killed and justice would need to be pursued. But what He didn’t want was some form of vigilante justice running rampant through the nation. Yet God knew that the relatives of a murder victim would tend to seek revenge against the guilty party and ask questions later. The cities of refuge were intended to protect the innocent while justice was being served.
Since Israel had no professional police force, these kinds of accidents could easily turn into bloodbaths where the relatives of the victim sought to avenge their loved one’s death. So, these cities, occupied by the Levites, would provide a place where the guilty party could find solace and seek a fair judgment concerning his guilt or innocence. In His plans for the land of promise, God was leaving nothing to chance. He was creating a well-designed system for dealing with the inevitable problem of sin among His chosen people. He was going to distribute the Levitical priesthood among them to provide spiritual enlightenment and He was going to create safe havens for those who unwittingly committed even the gravest of sins. God was providing for and protecting His people.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.